Jeffrey Archer
Thursday, 19 April 2012

The key to a happy marriage? Respect

His political career was rocked by scandal, but Jeffrey Archer has sold 250 million books. As his latest is published, he speaks to Laura Topham about life, love – and why he keeps a Hockney in the downstairs loo

Written by laura Topham

Given Jeffrey Archer's notoriously colourful life, one shouldn't be surprised at anything. But it is still a shock when his Lordship beckons me into his loo during our interview to examine the wall – not least because it is adorned with an array of paintings, including a Renoir, while above the WC itself hangs a David Hockney self-portrait.

'But where else should I put them?' asks Archer earnestly. He has a point, his huge penthouse on London's Albert Embankment is filled to bursting with art, from a Picasso sculpture to a Sisley and a large Monet in the hallway. Even the coffee table is Nelson's, from HMS Victory.

Such display – to say nothing of the impressive apartment itself, bought from Bernie Ecclestone 30 years ago – is testament to Archer's tremendous success. For while his political career was somewhat volatile (having been curtailed by near bankruptcy, a sex scandal and a prison sentence for perjury), his literary career has enjoyed an unmitigated upward trajectory. With sales topping 250 million worldwide, his books are so popular they regularly lead the bestseller lists in 97 countries. In India particularly – home to his biggest readership – he is something of a sensation, with his last book staying number one for 16 weeks.

'It's unexplainable,' says Archer, 71. 'I've been over there half a dozen times. It's very nice though. While book sales in England have dropped 4 per cent, in India they've grown by 40 per cent so I'm laughing.'

archerWith Laura Topham

Writing is now the focus of his life, with him spending alternate months in his house in Majorca where he works daily in two-hour chunks from 6am to 8pm.

'I go back four times for rewrites, too, and end up with about a 14th draft before anyone reads it. People who think the first draft is the end of the book can dream on. Majorca is a beautiful place to work, warm, quiet and lovely, but it is very hard work.'

Yet books were, initially, something he turned to only out of financial necessity after he resigned from the House of Commons in 1974 facing bankruptcy. The victim of a fraudulent investment programme, he had debts of around £400,000.

'I didn't start writing till the age of 34. I came to it as a second career when I stood down as MP and couldn't get a job. My first book, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less was based on how I'd lost my money. Now I haven't had any interest in active politics for 10 or 15 years; it's all writing.'

The ongoing presence of politics in his life is symbolised by the striking view of parliament across the Thames from the flat's two-storey windows. Politics had been lifelong passion, ignited while growing up in Westonsuper- Mare with his journalist mother and printer father.

'My mother was a local councillor and took her politics very seriously so I heard it at the breakfast table and was brought up with it,' he says. The interest grew when he studied education at Oxford and after joining the Conservative Party and moving to the capital he suddenly found himself elected to the Greater London Council at the age of just 26.

'It wasn't meant to have happened. I was standing for the unwinnable seat of Romford and then suddenly the Labour Party became so unpopular I got elected,' he says.

Just three years on, he entered parliament as an MP, at the age of 29. And though he stood down five years later to deal with his debts, he returned in 1985 when Margaret Thatcher made him deputy chairman of the Conservative Party.

'She knew I loved politics. Writing and politics are like two mistresses – a great challenge, but I love them both. Politics is vital and vibrant and I lived through very exciting times. I got the lucky years, 17 altogether with Margaret and John Major.'

His enduring friendship with Mrs Thatcher has prevented him watching the recent film about her. 'I can't face seeing it,' he says. His return to the fold proved brief, however – Archer resigned again a year later when newspapers revealed he had paid a prostitute to leave the country.

This was presumably grim reading for his wife, Mary, though she stood by him. The pair had met at Oxford, where she was reading chemistry.

'She was the brightest and most beautiful woman I had ever met,' he says. 'We were married within days of leaving Oxford so we've been married for 44 years, which is a long time. I got very lucky but my generation has a tendency to go through good times and bad without making a fuss.'

So what is the key to their long marriage? 'Respect,' he says, without irony. 'Love is wonderful and great and all that but if you lose respect for your partner... My wife is a very remarkable woman.'

Until recently, Mary was chair of Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and the couple split their time between Cambridge and London, where their two sons also live. Last year she dealt with aggressive bladder cancer, her quiet battle winning her a reputation for resilience. 'She had her whole innards cut out and never said a word,' he says.

This fortitude was previously demonstrated while giving evidence in 1987, when Archer sued the Daily Star for libel for alleging he had slept with the prostitute. Winning the case – and £500,000 damages – came back to bite him, however, when in 2001 he was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to four years in prison.

'It feels like a long time ago,' he says curtly, eager to forget. 'I've had six number-one bestsellers since then.' Does he ever think about it?

'No'. Even with the lifestyle he is accustomed to?

'It was so stark and so different and I do live such a privileged life. I'm very aware of that – more so now.'

Archer was expelled from the Tory party, though by then he had been made a Lord by John Major. There were calls for him to be stripped of his peerage.

'They can't remove a life title, they don't know the law,' he says. 'I still go to committee meetings and lots of charity events, but it's not the centre of my life.'

Yet that isn't the impression one gets, with his embossed slippers and a House of Lords cap sitting at the front of his cloak cupboard.

Not that he's about to rest on his laurels. As well as collecting art, he is also a major investor in West End theatre – owning big-name productions such as Dirty Dancing and the forthcoming Bodyguard – and a passionate auctioneer, which is 'a massive hobby'.

And this month sees publication of his second novel in a five-part series. 'I wanted a challenge that would make me get out of bed and work for five years in a row,' he says. 'I'll carry on working until I die. Why wouldn't one? What else is there to do?' u

The Sins Of The Father, (Clifton Chronicles 2), Pan Macmillan, £18.99.

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